Memo to: the next president

Take a look at cities – America's new democracy labs. They offer a model of how to set aside politics and forge alliances to solve problems. 

Cyrus McCrimmon/Denver Post/Getty Images/File
Denver's Union Station is a symbol of the city's Renaissance.

In Winston-Salem, N.C., they transformed a failing manufacturing city into an arts and technology powerhouse.

In Des Moines, Iowa, they made a lifeless downtown into a magnet for talented young people across the state and beyond.

In sprawling Denver, they built a regionwide light rail system, spurring more rational development, reducing pollution, and creating opportunity for once moribund neighborhoods.

In Milwaukee, they turned a blighted industrial district into a model 21st-century eco-industrial park that’s provided safe places to hike, play, and fish for children whose parents played in contaminated abandoned buildings.

And Roanoke, Va., an out-of-the-way Appalachian railroad town, pulled itself up by the bootstraps, embracing the outdoors and spawning a neuroscience research cluster that’s drawing attention from Houston to Oslo.

As the 2016 election campaign has turned increasingly bizarre, I’ve been traveling the United States for Politico, writing about cities that have managed to pull off amazing things. From New Hampshire to Utah, North Carolina to Ohio, the successes of the disparate communities I’ve written about turned out to have something in common: an ability for business executives, elected officials, and nonprofit leaders to cooperate to provide a common good none of them could create on their own. 

In more than 150 interviews and 50,000 published words, party affiliations never came up, even though many of the individuals clearly checked different boxes in federal elections during civic efforts that typically took 20 to 30 years to execute.

It’s enough to renew my faith in Americans’ ability to get things done, and it’s unexpectedly squared with the ideas I’ve put forward in a recent book on how to heal our political culture at the federal level at a time when the republic itself can seem in peril. Our history offers sound counsel in how to restore faith in our democratic institutions. The cities I’ve visited – which Washington-style gridlock and rancor have yet to reach – offer real-world evidence that it can be done.

Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Des Moines Register/AP
Rebekah Mabrey walks her greyhound, Otis, in a dog park in Des Moines, Iowa. She is one of many young people who have been drawn to a refurbished downtown district that features a vibrant arts, music and cafe scene.

Whatever happens on election day, people who care about America’s 240-year experiment with liberal democracy have a vital task before them. 

The next president and congressional leaders will also still preside over a country that is politically polarized, with differences that are geographic even as they are ideological. But the risks of inaction have grown.

I’ve spent much of the past decade – and written two books – exploring how we wound up so fractious and what can be done about it. The first one (“American Nations”) examined the true regional fissures behind red state/blue state maps and the sharp political divides within states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and California. They tie back to profound ideological, religious, and cultural differences between the original clusters of English, Dutch, and Spanish colonies in a nascent nation, which is why they show up again and again throughout our history. This week’s election results map will be no different.

The sequel (“American Character”) seeks to figure out what we have in common, identifying a set of political values that could deliver a lasting coalition, bridging the divide between many of the regional cultures and allowing us to govern. To do that, I first needed to explore what makes for a healthy liberal democracy, which is no longer an abstract intellectual exercise.

One important historical lesson I learned was that sustaining a liberal democracy – a political system that aspires to create and sustain universal individual freedom – is something of a Goldilocks problem. Extremes undermine it, and it’s strongest and most successful when the forces sustaining it are in balance.

Throughout American history, the real and abiding conflict has been not between “liberals” and “conservatives” or Democrats and Republicans, but over competing definitions of freedom. One school of thought has prioritized individual liberty. The other has valued the maintenance of the common good, which requires checks on individuals in order to provide an environment where everyone can be free.

Both ideals are vital to sustaining a free society, as those that neglected one or the other have discovered. In the single-minded pursuit of the collective good, the Soviet Union trampled individual freedom, creating a world where children informed on their parents and any form of association that wasn’t controlled by the state was frowned upon. Where government became too weak to put a check on private ambition, a few families seized control of power and most everything else, as in late 20th-century Honduras or El Salvador. The families controlled not only the wealth of the country, but the government, news media, courts, and armies as well. In one case it was rule by an Orwellian state, in the other by an odious matrix of oligarchies. 

A healthy liberal democracy manages to find the sweet spot where neither government nor concentrated private power become oppressive. Therein lies the great paradox: You can’t have widespread individual liberty without continually investing in the civic, social, and public institutions and infrastructure that support it. 

Jim Young/Reuters
Voters cast early ballots in Chicago.

Lest we forget at our own peril, there is nothing natural about liberal democracy. For the 5,000 years humanity has had complex civilizations, despotism and autocracy have been the norm. From ancient Babylonia to early modern Europe, people lived in societies in which individual freedom was not even part of their conceptual framework. Medieval Europeans saw themselves as part of one or another component of a giant social organism – king, soldier, peasant, priest – born into a role they were forever bound to. Ancient Greece and Rome weren’t liberal democracies, but rather slave states where a select few had the privilege of practicing democracy, and subjugation was the natural lot of the many.

Liberal democracy is an extraordinary human achievement, the result of eons of preparation and four centuries of not-always-
successful experimentation. Its prerequisites included the cultivation of a republican citizenry with a commitment to civic altruism, a respect for minority points of view and the tenets of an open society, and an ability to analyze the complex issues that come before them as voters. Places that have tried democracy in the absence of these foundational forces – from Revolutionary France to postwar Iraq – have floundered in repression, atrocity, and war. 

That’s one of the reasons we invest in shared institutions, but they are vital to keeping our socioeconomic realm free and competitive as well.

The American idea is pretty individualistic: the pursuit of happiness via a competition between individuals and their ideas and institutions – a belief that, in aggregate, this competition will create a dynamic, adaptable, healthy, and, yes, free society. But there’s an important qualification: We want this competition to be free and fair, so everyone gets a shot in the game and cheaters are punished.

It’s government that is tasked with ensuring that the competition is played fairly. Liberal democracy needs leveling institutions to ensure all power and resources don’t accrue – unfairly – to certain families as a matter of birth, creating an aristocracy. That requires investments in public schools and universities, hospitals and health insurance, parks and libraries, and highways, bridges, and public transit. The justification for these is straightforward: They protect our freedom and way of life by ensuring everyone has a fair shot to achieve his or her potential.

It’s the bipartisan failure to keep our society both free and fair that’s undermined the public commitment to liberal democracy. For two generations, leading politicians from both parties have pursued policies that hurt the economic interests of huge numbers of Americans, eroding the security of the working class and undercutting many in the middle. 

Since the late 1970s, we’ve been cutting taxes on the wealthy, eroding the minimum wage, and scaling back most nonmilitary investments, from basic science and higher education to highways and social services. During that time, the share of the nation’s wealth held by the top tenth of 1 percent of households has gone from
7 percent to 22 percent as the bottom third’s share fell by about a third. Social mobility has fallen, too, and poverty rates have risen.

This has created a situation that is politically volatile: The economic losers are legion, they feel ignored, and they’ve lost faith in conventional politics and politicians.

Writing before this election got under way, I argued that we needed to find our balance again at the federal level by making high-return investments in schools and other institutions that give people a fair chance to achieve whatever they want, improving both the economy and the body politic. 

But as the campaign unfolded, I traveled from city to city and saw how people on the local level had been already collaborating to do just that, with impressive results. 

Charlie Neibergall/AP/File
The Des Moines Social Club – an Art Deco fire station that has been turned into a venue with a theater, a club, a gallery, and classrooms – is at the heart of a revival of downtown Des Moines over the past couple of decades.

Take Des Moines, Iowa. In the late 1980s, its civic leaders realized that their prosperous insurance town had an Achilles’ heel: It was boring. Downtown was dead, a web of skywalks and empty streets. Young Iowans were fleeing the state, and business leaders were having trouble luring outsiders to relocate there. “The business community here is really strong and responsible and they took leadership on these things out of enlightened self-interest,” recalls Mary O’Keefe, a longtime vice president at Principal insurance, one of the city’s biggest employers. 

So a group of business and philanthropic leaders got together, took it upon themselves to bring in an outside consultant to devise a strategy, and then over the next three decades executed the plan with the help of state, county, and city resources. A city of just 200,000 people managed to create a neighborhood of 10,000 in an area nobody lived in; expanded the entertainment district; built a civic center, science museum, public library, and riverfront park; and knocked down 10 blocks in the city center to create a central park, now lined with corporate headquarters and restaurants. Much of it was organized and financed by the private sector.

Young people began to return, building an arts, music, and restaurant scene that fueled more dynamism and created opportunities for others to try out their ideas. One was Zack Mannheimer. Disillusioned with the grass-roots theater scene in New York, he drove across the country in an aging Hyundai Elantra in 2007 in search of a freer environment. He found something happening in Des Moines. 

“The ability to pioneer or do anything new in New York or Chicago is virtually impossible and would take the rest of your life and cost you millions,” says Mr. Mannheimer, who got a job as a waiter in a private social club and had city leaders invite him to pitch his idea for an arts incubator while waiting their tables. (“Iowa nice” has its advantages.) With their encouragement and support, the 29-year-old newcomer was eventually able to raise $8 million to renovate a 1930s Art Deco fire station into a venue that includes a theater, a club, a gallery, and classrooms called the Des Moines Social Club; it’s been at the heart of the city’s renaissance.

“Pretty soon all the third-tier cities will be oversaturated and people are going to head to the rural Midwest,” says Mannheimer, who is trying to replicate this arts-driven development model in Iowa’s smaller towns. “That’s the future.”

•     •     •

Thirty years ago, Denver’s challenge was that smog and sprawl were threatening the city’s viability. The auto-centric urban area needed a world-class transit system to reduce congestion, tie the sprawling metro area together, and foster walkable, high-density developments that would use infrastructure more efficiently. 

Nobody believed the people of a car-minded Western city would approve a sales tax increase to pay for the multibillion-dollar plan, but in a 2004 referendum they did. “The trick is to get people to recognize that they have a broader self-interest than they think they do,” says Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was Denver’s mayor at the time. “They say they want a light rail line to their neighborhood [or else they won’t vote for it], but if there’s a system in place, it may get people off the roads and make their lives better. If they realize that, it dramatically increases the chance of an alignment of interests that gives you progress in government.”

When sales tax revenues plummeted after the 2008 financial collapse, threatening the entire project, transit officials created a public-private partnership. A private developer agreed to build and operate several of the lines in return for regular payments. Now most of the lines are in place, spurring high-density neighborhoods downtown. Panasonic Corporation has created a model smart city around a station near the airport, where sensors automatically detect when the sidewalks need plowing and computers tell drivers where the nearest open parking spot is via cellphone app or their vehicle’s in-dash system. 

“If there was no train station, there would be no value to this place,” says Panasonic official Jim Doyle, who moved the company’s Enterprise Solutions division here from Newark, N.J.

Rebecca Barnett/The Roanoke Times/AP
Diners sit on the front patio of a restaurant overlooking the Cotton Mill, a former textile plant that has been turned into loft apartments, in a revitalized section of downtown Roanoke, Va.

Other cities have forged new futures out of crisis rather than managing growth. Roanoke, Va., was a railroad town that had lost its railroad. Its elected, corporate, and nonprofit leaders rallied around efforts to revive downtown and expand its trails, parks, and riverfront recreation. They also helped the local hospital network and a nearby university create a medical school, a world-class neuroscience research institute, and biotech innovation quarter. People and jobs are now moving in instead of moving out.

“People want economic development to be a silver bullet, but it’s not. It’s like spinning plates,” says Beth Doughty, head of the Roanoke Regional Partnership, which markets the region to potential investors. “No one person or entity is responsible for all of the plates, but you do want them all spinning at the same time.”

Winston-Salem, N.C., lost 10,000 jobs in 18 months after R.J. Reynolds moved its headquarters to Atlanta and several other homegrown companies failed in the late 1980s. It was the first of several waves of job losses as the city’s manufacturing base collapsed. Civic leaders chipped in to create a $40 million fund to loan start-up capital to entrepreneurs, hire staff for a local development corporation, and fund signature projects. One of them was the renovation of a 1920s Art Deco office tower into downtown apartments. 

This activity helped spur Wake Forest University’s medical school to undertake an ambitious project to create a research park in former R.J. Reynolds manufacturing buildings next to downtown. The school has filled 2 million square feet of empty factories with high-tech companies and world-class biomedical researchers. An adjacent African-American church has turned 15 acres in the area into lofts, senior housing, and businesses. Downtown has attracted $1.6 billion in investment since 2002.

Now people gather to sip coffee, attend concerts, or take yoga classes in a new park in the shadow of the looming chimneys of a former Reynolds power plant. The plant itself is being repurposed into a $40 million hub of restaurants, stores, laboratories, and office space. Students, researchers, and entrepreneurs mingle in the halls and atria of all the former factory buildings, creating the kind of synergetic environment the innovation industry now craves.

“It wasn’t one person or thing that made it all happen; it was everyone from the grass roots to the corporate leaders coming together,” says Jeffrey Smith, who runs Smitty’s Notes, an influential community news site. “We realized it would take all of us to get this hog out of the ditch.”

•     •     •

In the 1990s, Milwaukee was trying to figure out what to do with the Menomonee Valley, a four-mile industrial zone near its downtown that had long been an eyesore. Developers wanted to build cheap warehouses in the district, which was built around a railroad, but was almost entirely isolated from the local road network. Community activists and city officials wanted more job-intensive uses.

An unlikely coalition came together around the idea of rehabilitating the valley as an eco-industrial park. Led by the mayor and officials at a nearby community health clinic, it included factory owners, philanthropists, representatives of the adjacent minority neighborhoods, and an urban ecology center that had reinvigorated city parks. It also included a native American tribe that owned a thriving bingo hall-turned-hotel casino complex sandwiched between a slaughterhouse and a coal-fired power plant. Through a small nonprofit, they raised money, fostered relationships, developed design standards, and bought key properties.

The guiding idea, says former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, was that industrial companies and their workers didn’t want to inhabit an ugly, unpleasant environment as many factories did in the past. “You don’t have to create a hell on earth around them to make money,” he told me. “They liked clean air and vegetation as well.”

Now the valley attracts joggers to its trails, kids to its soccer fields and nature walks, and salmon and trout fishermen to the riverbanks. There are new road connections to and through the valley. Pedestrian bridges again link the area with Silver City, a working-class Latino neighborhood where kids had few safe places to play. 

Most impressive is the industrial space: acres of new manufacturing buildings tied together with jogger-friendly sidewalks and design elements that make it feel more like part of the New Urbanism movement than an antiseptic office park. Since 2000, some 40 businesses have moved in and more than $1 billion has been invested in the district, boosting employment by 8,000.

“If you just sit back and let things happen, what the market thinks should happen is not always perfectly aligned with what’s best for your city,” says Lilith Fowler, a former head of the nonprofit that coordinated the effort.

In all of these places, cooperation, not conflict, was the impelling force behind civic efforts that took two or more decades to pull off. People with differing political beliefs and walks of life got together to invest in common infrastructure, and their cities were better for it, economically, socially, and in civic health and pride. 

Is anyone in Washington taking notice?

ρ Colin Woodard is the author of five books, including “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” and “American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good.” He’s a contributing editor at Politico and a staff writer at the Portland Press Herald in Portland, Maine. 


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